Monday, September 25, 2006

Skylab moment

OF THIS, I am sure. The habal-habal proves that the fear of flying is best countered by attempting flight under the worst possible conditions.

Friday night pre-flight jitters: we quickly lost our well-being from supping on native chicken broth when we realized that the multi-cab we were banking on for the trip back to the Poblacion had left and was not coming back.

Three hours away from midnight, six kilometers away from the highway in Alegria, three hours away from our homes in Cebu.

Though we did not want to further upset our hosts, who had presumed that our knapsacks meant we were staying overnight, we had to go back to the city that night. My husband Roy and our friend Reuben had to work the following day. I had to write and email.

But all this baggage fell away when Juan, 6, raised the most important point. “How are we all going to go back riding that?”

Thoughtful silence as boy and three sheepish adults stared at the contraption standing on the asphalted road. Thin moonlight bathed what seemed like a couple of rickety chairs lashed together and balanced on two spindly wheels: the skylab, habal-habal, king of mountain trails, if you can afford P25 in fare and the heartsick certainty that the next steep curve will find you flying, strange birds without wings and even odder expressions.

Like all things Filipino, our chariot had masa written all over it. To afford the fare, you had to be someone who was useless at walking distances measured by a pursed mouth pointed at some point disappearing into infinity.

Most likely, the skylab passenger was an “astronaut,” someone who worked for a monthly salary in the city (binulan, usually a house helper, factory worker or sales clerk).

Only city folks are foolish enough to part with the skylab fare, which can already buy a kilo and a half of milled corn to feed an upland family of eight.

Only the foolhardy will squeeze themselves to fit the “seat,” a space not even Euclidean geometry can postulate for two, let alone four, sometimes seven strangers conjoined in a messy mash of butt and groin, with just a sliver of space for the driver, inevitably slim of waist and hopefully not too drunk or stoned yet.

That is unfair to our driver that night. That he was just all soul and flap of skin made it possible for Reuben and two knapsacks to sit on his lap. Titing assured us he would use the engine brakes throughout the trip so we would wobble less. Such a soul of discretion did not have to mention that he placed Roy and I behind him, on the principle that passengers in the pink of health provided “ballast” and were harder to shake off, like a guilty conscience.

With Juan inserted between us like an afterthought, we took off. Our earsplitting departure refuted that flight is mute, poetic, serene.

For we were all but placid inside. Reuben rode a motorcycle only twice in his life; each time, he took a spill. Being a passenger always made Roy nervous. He had seen too many drivers keep a speeding motorcycle perpendicular to the ground until an obstacle materializing after a curve suspended the argument.

I was nervous for Juan. That alone made him nervous about me. The more the road twisted, the more I squeezed my son, the more he wriggled, the more the skylab wobbled.

If we made it to the highway in one piece, it was all due to our pilot, bless his soul. I can’t shake off the feeling though that Titing, watching our taillights disappear back to the city, must have ruminated how the mountains have no creature more bizarre than the city’s wingless, witless cuckoos.

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